I admit that prior to my visit to Hawaii in 2004, a lot of what I knew about the horrific attack of December 7, 1941, came from the 2001 film Pearl Harbor. The Hollywood depiction of events was undeniably dramatic, but the grainy historical film presented at the USS Arizona Memorial was just as gut-wrenching. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the Japanese officers who planned the attack, and the unwavering devotion to the destruction of the base by the men who were sent to carry out the mission. I felt disgusted, incredulous, sad, and angry at the blatant disregard for the sanctity of human life and somewhat resentful of the presence of a huge number of Japanese tourists in the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder at their motives for being there–had they innocently come to learn about a terrible event in history as I had, or were they there to gloat over how their country had taken advantage of ours? Irrational and prejudicial thoughts, I know, ones of which I was and am ashamed.
The shoe was on the other foot in 2010, however, when I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. Suddenly I was cast in the role of “enemy” tourist, and I had to wonder if the Japanese exploring the Peace Memorial Museum were as suspicious of my motives for being there as I had once been of their countrymen in Hawaii. I was there to learn, not to gloat, but would anyone believe that? Would they believe that I was once again disgusted, incredulous, sad, and angry…but this time at the American officials who decided such a catastrophic and far-reaching attack on Japanese civilians was justified in the name of war? I wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye back in 1945 (neither were my parents, for that matter), but nevertheless I felt guilty by virtue of simply being an American. The shame I felt brought me to tears just as much as the heart-breaking personal stories I read in the museum.
So on this, the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I take a moment to honor the unsuspecting men and women who lost their lives that early December morning, and the countless service members who subsequently died in defense of our country when the US officially entered WWII. But, as unpatriotic as it may seem to some on this day, I can’t help but also think, with sympathy and regret, of the Japanese civilians who died four years later. I am grateful that I was able to visit both the Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima memorials, not only to learn more of the history surrounding key events of the war, but to experience my own gut reactions to being, however indirectly, the “attacked” and the “attacker” in those events. Visiting both sides of the historical fence reinforced the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right, and made me proud that we could move past such atrocious behavior on both sides to forge the amicable, cooperative relationship our two countries enjoy today.